Lewis Hamilton is the greatest driver of all time.
Did I get your attention with that one? Are you angrily typing about how I didn’t say your favorite driver was greatest of all time? Good, You are helping to make my point. The debate of “Greatest of all time” is one that rages throughout the sporting world all over, but is it really all that simple? It is a question where answers are influenced by many things. These influences include Driver Statistics such as Wins and Championships, or how people perceive their performance in a given car. Or, of course, they can be influenced by our own biases.
These Biases can arise from things as simple as the personality types we find enjoyable within Formula 1, to what we perceive as entertaining, and so on. With all of this in mind, I will now try and cover many of the arguments for and against a driver in the debate of “Greatest Of All Time”, as well as giving my own thoughts on driver comparisons.
“Oh but he had the best Car!!!!!”
We’ll start with what is perhaps the most common complaint against many World Champions. And that is that they only ever won because of the best Car. Modern examples of this include Michael Schumacher, who you will find targeted by any driver he beat because “Best Car”. Or Sebastian Vettel, who is most commonly targeted by more hardcore Fernando Alonso Fans, or British Fans in general (Yes I’m aware that this site reaches a predominantly British Audience, but oh well) because he had “An overpowered Adrian Newey car” that doesn’t take into account the fact that Adrian Newey has designed some horrible Cars, and that Red Bull was slower in 2012. And then there’s Lewis Hamilton with his Mercedes cars which, other than to a point in 2018, have been the best cars on the grid. So these driver’s won with the best Cars(Mostly), but why is this a bad thing?
If you look into the careers of these 3 drivers, you will find they all had incredibly noteworthy careers prior to their period of dominance. To start with Schumacher, he was already a double World Champion by the time he reached Ferrari, and in spite of the controversies of his first title, you are only lying to yourself if you say he was not performing incredibly in those years. In addition, while at Ferrari, he had to wait until his 5th season before he came close to the best car, and in that time he was in Championship contention 3 times. He earned those years of the best car. He worked tirelessly with the team and drove exceptionally to earn those years of triumph.
Hamilton was also rather decorated by the time he reached Mercedes. Being a world Champion already in 2008, there is nothing to suggest that he hadn’t earned the right to have the fastest Car. He outperformed Fernando Alonso in 2007(Insert McLaRen BrItiSh BiAs here) and nearly won the title, he was completely deserving of the title in 2008, and he continued to drive brilliantly for the remainder of his time with McLaren.
In particular, he was a title contender in 2010 and 2012, and he still picked up wins in 2009 and 2011. While those latter 2 years mentioned may not be his finest of seasons, what else is there to suggest he didn’t deserve the success that followed? He’s been nearly flawless since he joined Mercedes, and he’s picked himself up from any hardship constantly.
Now onto Sebastian Vettel. Vettel is the one this is most commonly directed towards, and the one whom is most difficult to reason with. But still, I believe he was more than deserving of every bit of success he had. Let’s not forget his Torro Rosso Performances in races such as 4th in China 2007, his incredible Monza 2008 Win, and his excellent Drive in Brazil 2008.
Prior to his 2010-2013 Domination, he was considered to be one of the most loved and exciting talents on the Formula 1 Grid. To add to this, what is there to suggest he didn’t deserve that Success? Even with the best car, you need the Talent to win, and where did he falter in 2010 through to 2013? Name one legitimate reason as to why he didn’t deserve those titles that isn’t the common “ALONSO IN INFERIOR FERRARI” type logic, I dare you.
The basic point I’m trying to make here is that drivers who end up with the best Cars have a habit of earning their way to them. And in the case of those who end up in debates such as “Greatest of all time”, they’ve used them to quite a bit of success. Now, this “Best Car” topic normally ties into something else; How they performed without the best car, and so, we move onto that…
Under Pressure: Under-performing and Out-performing
This is very much a topic of intense debate within the Formula 1 Community. You are never guaranteed to have the best car in Formula 1, and in some cases, you’ll find that a drivers performance in one car is used to add or detract from their performance in another. Or a bad season here is used to completely nullify a good season there because it shows “Their true skill”. For this, we will use 2 Examples: Sebastian Vettel in 2014 and 2019, and Fernando Alonso’s various title bids.
sebastian vettel: “2014 shows his true colors”
We’ll start with Vettel because I just tried to reason why he deserved success. Following the 2013 Formula 1 Season, Red Bull Racing lost their edge. Mercedes took over at the top of the standings following the new regulations introduced that year, and Vettel would not take a single win all Season. New teammate Daniel Ricciardo would take 3 wins and comfortably beat Vettel for most of the season. This is usually used to evidence that Vettel only ever won because of him having the best car (Not in 2012 but anyway). However, I personally believe it to be a case of much more than driving skill.
As stated, From 2007 to 2013, Sebastian Vettel was among the most well-regarded drivers in the sport. He was outstanding to watch from the start and was clearly skilled in all conditions. 2014 on the other hand, was a disaster. He looked nowhere the entire season, but I believe this can be rationalized. There are some things to note about Vettel between 2013 and 2014. One of those is that at the end of the 2013 Season, his first child had been born. Secondly, his hero and friend in the form of Michael Schumacher, had his Skiing incident from which he is yet to recover, and thirdly, the dynamic of the team, sport, and cars had changed drastically. While that last point may perhaps indicate he should be more adaptable, the first 2 still carry weight…
Something that’s been made clear over time is that Vettel is a very private person, and it’s also been made clear he very much is a family person. And the fact that his family has begun to grow around the time his performance dropped doesn’t seem too coincidental. And even then, from 2015 to mid 2018 he had clearly recovered form, and was, in my opinion, in the top 3 Formula 1 drivers on the grid until recently. His poor (But not as poor as made out to be) 2019 Season was also in an increasingly unstable environment, and all of these points suggest that he has perhaps not had the best environment to work in for several years.
Even if this is speculative, my point with all of this is that there are often times cases where drivers simply fade away, but it shouldn’t be taken as ‘THAT DRIVER IS TRASH”. There can be such a long list of potential reasons. These go from potential environmental instability to a simple drop off in performance (See Damon Hill in 1999), and they require a bit of digging into to really understand. Now, with “Under-performing” out of the way, let us move to “Out-performing”
fernando alonso: “Out-performing”
Fernando Alonso has a reputation among the Formula 1 fans as having been the kind of driver to “Out-perform” his cars. Supporters of Alonso in this regard commonly point to his 2005, 2010, and 2012 seasons as examples of this. However, as is commonly the case, people only focus on the end results and not what occurred in the process of reaching them.
Let’s start with 2005, Alonso’s first title-winning Season. Fernando’s primary rival in 2005 was McLaren’s Kimi Räikkönen, and by the end of the year, McLaren did indeed have the best car. However, there are caveats to this detail. And that is at the start of the season, McLaren were nowhere. This allowed Renault and Alonso to storm to an early lead, and it took until San Marino for McLaren to be the fastest in any way. And then enters McLaren’s next problem; Reliability. To put it lightly, the biggest reason Fernando Alonso was World Champion was McLaren’s reliability. Alonso was 21 points ahead by the end of the season, however, Räikkönen had 3 DNF’s to Alonso’s 1. Only of Kimi’s DNF’s, were down to Error. Meanwhile, Alonso’s only DNF was entirely down to him. 2 of Kimi’s DNF’s were Mechanical, in races he was likely to win. These 2 wins alone would’ve made Kimi the World Champion at the end of the Season.
2010 and 2012 were very much the same case, and even in 2010 Alonso made more driving errors than eventual World Champion Vettel. And this came while also having what was, a more reliable car. 2012 Saw Alonso in contention once again, and much like 2005, it was predominantly thanks to chaos in other teams. If McLaren and Red Bull had more steady seasons as teams, Alonso and Ferrari would never have been close. A point on people’s perception of this is how people believe that his Spa and Suzuka DNF’s were the primary reason Vettel began to take the lead, while in reality they merely equalized some of the bad luck that Vettel had prior, and they didn’t even fully do it. My point to this is that while his season may have been incredible, one can not understate how lucky he was for most of the season.
Now for my overall point on this; A perception of a driver “Out-performing” often has Caveats. In Alonso’s case, while he might be an incredible driver, he has also often times had incredible luck. And in others, there is usually more to the story. However, there is always going to be a focus on end results, and that now brings us onto our next point… Stats.
Statistics: Important but misused
Statistics are something of a slippery slope when it comes to driver debates. On one hand, You’ll find people using statistics to argue that a certain driver is great or bad. On the other hand, You’ll find that others will say that statistics are irrelevant because of some of the previously stated reasons. So, with this in mind, what relevancy do they carry? Well, the answer is probably somewhat complicated.
Formula 1 Rules and Regulations have changed significantly over time. In this context, the calendar size and scoring rules are the ones that matter most. For example, we can look at the differences between the 2004 and 2013 Formula 1 seasons and compare. Both Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel took 13 Wins each. But Schumachers 13 was with one less race to work with, thereby implying that Schumacher had a more impressive Season. But 19 races vs 18 provides more opportunities for others to win or for things to go wrong, the latter of which was indeed the case in 2013. In addition, the 2013 Season would see different pit lane rules, which would be more relevant to Qualifying results specifically. As a result, you may find the 2004 Qualifying results to be more dependent on technicalities for fuel. These are just a couple of many potential variances in stats and their relevancy.
My point with this is that stats, once you get into the specifics, are someone difficult to compare thanks to the differences in the era they come from. However, I am of the opinion that good stats do indicate that the driver is good. I don’t care that Lewis Hamilton has the best car, if he’s able to drive it as well as he does, I say that clearly indicates he’s a good driver.
With all of this in mind, I would like to move onto perhaps the most important topics; Biases.
Biases: A prevailing factor
In the end, perhaps the largest reason behind why the “Greatest of all time” debate gets so heated, is simply because of our own bias and favoritism. There are as many reasons for our liking and disliking of drivers as there are those of us who bother to have an opinion on the matter. Some of us might like a driver simply by their personality traits, and I happen to fall into this, generally. Some of us might like a driver because of the excitement we think he brings to the field. You could like them for stats, you could like them cause of their team… do you get my point here?
To put it simply, we all have our favorite things and people, and we get attached to them. Our attachments to our sporting heroes are included in this. Because of our liking for our favorite drivers, it’s almost as if we feel a need to promote and defend them. And while it’s usually all in good fun, it can become needlessly heated when discussion the idea of “DRIVER X IS BETTER THAN DRIVER Y”
I suppose that my point in this regard is that quite simply, we sometimes just don’t like to acknowledge the Idea of our favorite driver’s being lesser in reality than they are in our minds. While we might be somewhat oblivious to this in our own minds, it is undoubtedly something that makes determining the abilities of others rather difficult. With all of this in mind, I think we may now move to conclusions…
It’s rather difficult to determine who the greatest driver of all time in, and here I’ve done nothing to actually help with that debate. In fact I’ve probably come across as being overly defensive of a few drivers than anything. But my overall message is rather easy to understand. Simply put, there are many more factors in determining the greats than are immediately obvious to us. And thanks to our own biases, we may not be willing to look into them. The debate over the all time greats will always continue to be heated, but hopefully, this will give you an idea of just a few of many factors that may play into it.
…And in the end, does it really matter who is the best person at “Merely Driving around in Circles!” ?